New Age: the Fall of the Secular State

Assaf Inbari 1999

When the euphoria of 1967 dissolved in the debacle of 1973, the  Israeli ethos - secularism, modernity, social democracy - failed to  stand the strain. And so the search began for other answers - from pacifism to free love to Eastern gurus to undiluted capitalism.

For Christendom, Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War was one of the most significant events of the century. The "liberation of Jerusalem" from the Arabs was perceived by Christians as a Crusader-type event. At the navel of the world, in the city from which the savior ascended to heaven, the Jews now atoned for the sin of betraying him to his crucifiers and by their actions prepared the ground for his second coming. True, Israel also had its share of individuals, such as the IDF's chief chaplain at the time, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who construed the victory as a metaphysical event, miraculous, the harbinger of the divine redemption; but Rabbi Goren, even in his most ardent moments, was moderate by comparison to the fire-breathing American preachers who trumpeted end-of-the-world prophecies after 1967. Upon learning of the outcome of the war, Thomas Peterson, who headed a New York-based Christian movement (the Brotherhood of Jesus), declared that it was now clear when the world would come to an end: according to his calculations, the War of Judgment between the United States and the Soviet Union would erupt in another 21 years. On that day (May 14, 1988), he said, 200 million Arabs would overrun Israel and destroy it. The war would engulf the entire world. Humanity would be wiped out, apart from the followers of Peterson (the self-styled "great father").
    In the United States and Europe, communes of the fundamentalist type multiplied. The Mormons restored polygamy. Other sects began to uphold the Scriptures literally, without exegetical mediation, including the commandment to share everything. One such group called itself the Church of Armageddon. According to the Revelation of John, "har magedon," the "mountain of Megiddo," is where the final great battle will be fought. Ever since, that hill, which Christians call "Armageddon," had come to stand for the most apocalyptic of nightmares. Armageddon is pestilence, it is nuclear winter, meteor shower, volcanic eruption, earthquake, invasion of aliens (or birds, or your mother-in-law). Now, with Armageddon chosen as the name of a sect, the sign had been given for the calamity that was going to befall mankind around the year 2000.
    The seer Jeane Dixon continued to utter prophetic visions. Martin Luther King would be murdered that year, Dixon announced, and when she stayed at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles she declared that Robert Kennedy would be slain there within a few months. When both events came to pass in quick succession, in that spring of 1968, Dixon acquired the status of an oracle, and the prestige of all psychics soared. Parapsychology, as a subject for study and as a private occupation, began to be taken seriously. Increasingly broad groups delved into telepathy, seances, the supernatural. The long hoped-for thrust into space was seen as another element in the general spirit of man's penetration into places until then considered unattainable and inaccessible: The breach of the stratospheric barrier was perceived as intertwining with the breach of the consciousness barrier. "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind," Neil Armstrong intoned through the visor of his helmet as he stepped onto the surface of the moon in 1969. That great leap for mankind was also a major step forward for believers in aliens. The moon photos supplied by Apollo 11 were scrutinized painstakingly by those who declined to accept the "official version." Clear signs of a cultural presence were discernible, they claimed, on the crater-pocked wasteland. One photograph revealed letters of the Latin alphabet. Folds of the terrain that were visible in another photograph were unquestionably Arabic numerals. That all these recesses and protrusions might be mere topography was a possibility scoffed at by the aliens freaks and best left to the bored scientists of NASA.

Cosmic circle of creation

    Topography was also preoccupying quite a few artists in Israel. Yitzhak Danziger, Yigal Tumarkin, Avital Geva and Micha Ulman wrought sculptures of earth and clay, built Canaanite altars, dug trenches, tied ribbons to olive trees, assembled stones into terraces and installed dolmens made out of basalt. "Environmental art" involving the shaping of the landscape did away with the old definitions of the art object. This was not "sculpture" in the accepted sense of the word. The "sculpture" was no longer placed in a space designated for its exhibition, but neither would it be true to say that it was placed "outside," since the outside itself was the "sculpture." The artist's intervention in the landscape, with the rest of the landscape serving as his subject, constituted a single aesthetic totality. The materiality of nature - that elementary materiality that precedes "culture," "art" and "style" - now fascinated numerous artists around the world.
    In Germany, Joseph Beuys created an installation of sledges, each carrying a ration of fat. The environmental artist Christo wrapped buildings, trees, hills and valleys in nylon sheets, and at times it seemed that his passion for packaging would not abate until he had wrapped Nicaragua, Libya or Portugal.
    The American composer John Cage (on occasion a Buddhist, a coiner of aphorisms and a collector of mushrooms) was taken by the "music of chance" made by the sounds of nature. Tape recorder in hand, Cage walked along the seashore and through forests and fields, and then, in the studio, edited the sound samples he had gathered in the field (whistle of wind, drone of insects, tip-tapping of water droplets tumbling from leaf to leaf) into "works" that were almost wholly free of the hand of man. The "music of chance" was acoustic "ecology," as the landscape installations of Christo, Danziger and Tumarkin were visual "ecology." Their art was not Western, still less modernist; it was pagan, and in Israel it assumed an additional dimension: nostalgic, "archaeological." "Man's connection with the cosmic circle of the creation," as Danziger described it, was realized by the forging of an alliance with the Canaanite, the Perizzite, the Hittite and the Gergashite - the authentic, original inhabitants of the land. Mother Earth
    The national euphoria had not yet faded when scattered showers of Egyptian artillery shells descended on the outposts manned by reservists on the east bank of the Suez Canal. After being crushed in the Six-Day War, the enemy was perceived as a nuisance, not a genuine threat; he was capable only of "attrition." Yehoram Gaon took first place in the Song Festival with "Ballad to a Medic," and the kids who were born in 1969 read "Azzit the Paratroopers' Dog" by Motta Gur, later the IDF's chief of staff. But on the fringes of Tel Aviv, in a hut near the confluence of the Yarkon River and the sea, a group gathered that sang other tunes.
    The rock'n'roll pacifism of the 1960s, which had so far infiltrated the country as an import from the United States, now assumed a Hebrew form at the hands of the "Lul" group led by Uri Zohar and Arik Einstein and their hangers-on. The joy of the "hevre" - that nonchalant, Palmach-style, sui generis Israeli form of male bonding - conferred on both their product and the entire communal ethos a captivating local charm. Within a year, in a dense outburst of joint creativity, records, films and a whole folklore emerged from the hut, which became a spontaneous model for emulation. The accordion of the army troupes was discarded in favor of the electric guitar. The puritanical restraint of the square establishment was cast off in favor of a spirit of folly and sexual freedom.
    On Israeli television, which had just come into existence, the hevre produced satiric schticks and fresh songs, which injected the group's existence into the national consciousness. The New Left had a sound track. Yehonatan Gefen, who wrote the song "Avshalom" for Arik Einstein, epitomized the yearning that in the 1970s would launch Abie Nathan's "Voice of Peace" and eventually engender the Peace Now movement.
    "Why not, why not now, what will certainly be here by tomorrow," Einstein sang in a direct continuation of Rotblitt's "Shir Hashalom" ("Don't say 'a day will come' - bring the day"). The whole group, with reinforcements, pounded out a rendition of Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" - in Hebrew. "Israel's singers," one newspaper declared, "ask: dehilak, give peace a chance." That dehilak, that naive and simplistic expression of impatience - "enough already," "come on already" - supposedly reflected a political statement; but the group's political vision was ultimately encapsulated in the amorphous promise: "You and I will change the world," you and I first, and then everyone else will follow.
    "The nonsense that people do not speak," Voltaire once noted, "they sing." The hevre wanted "freedom," and the longing seemed sufficient unto itself, without any attempt at defining the substance of the freedom, once it would be attained. "Don't know why, don't know how or what, I just want to get out. What's this thing that's happened to me, do I feel good or do I feel bad, tell me," Einstein sang, and Shalom Hanoch replied, "Let yourself kick, let yourself laugh, let yourself knock and let yourself hear, let yourself live and let yourself see, let yourself grow, just love."
    Just love, or, as Yehonatan Gefen summed up the group's political platform: "We want a more beautiful world, free love, we're young, we're beautiful and we're everyone's mother-fuckers." Ya'akov Rotblitt, who wrote "Mother Earth" for Arik Einstein, expressed, unintentionally, the same pagan, apolitical yearning for the great Gaya Mother that had been adumbrated in "Days of Ziklag" and "Life as a Parable." Now, with that yearning dotting the countryside in the form of the altars and dolmens created by Danziger and Tumarkin, it was also broadcast on the radio and hummed on the street. "She will look at me with goodness and wisdom, like a son coming home from the road. She will clasp me to her with warm breath. Mother Earth. She will say: 'You are tired from the journey. Don't be afraid. I will dress your wounds.' She will take me to her when I call her name, she is always quiet and as always, forgiving. She will clasp me to her with warm breath. Mother Earth."

The teenage guru

   The self-confident brashness that was a signal feature of the Israeli psyche crashed in October 1973. Fifteen years had passed since the chest-beating celebrations that marked the first decade of the country's existence in 1958. For 15 years the Israeli ethos had stood tall. Now that it was on its knees, all that was needed was a small shove in the back to make it fall on its face. The war, which was not a defeat, was experienced as though it had been. It was summed up in the word mehdal - blunder, failure. The government and the army were perceived as one body, which had disappointed, and the public's wrath at the "leadership" that had "lost" the war (and therefore "had to go") proved that the Labor Movement was no longer viewed as a side in an ideological debate.
    The prosaic truth about the death rattle of "Israeliness" was exposed in the apolitical wave of protest and in the posters demanding, "Golda and Dayan - go home!" It was not by dint of its ideology that the Labor Movement had enjoyed the public's confidence after 1967, and it was not because of ideology that the public turned against it in 1973. The public acclaimed Labor when it led the country to victory in war, and it excoriated the movement when the war went badly. The values of the Israeli ethos - secularism, modernity, social democracy - which had been embodied politically in Labor were now visible in all their fragility and in their tenuous hold on the public. A comparative failure by the army sufficed for that ethos to be hissed from the stage.
    In the midst of the war, a group of 20 Israelis flew to a meeting of the Divine Light Mission in Houston, Texas in order to view the splendrous face of a 16-year-old boy. The tens of thousands of believers who packed the stadium walked past Guru Maharaj Ji in procession, bowed down one after the other, and kissed his feet. When the boy had had enough, he got up and sprayed them with a water cannon, and they exulted and cheered. His habit of humiliating his followers, of abusing them, of beating them when he was in the mood, or even of attacking them sexually in private circumstances only heightened their veneration. They were grateful for any acknowledgment of their existence, and they let him choose the means.
    He was the bodily incarnation of God. It was said of him that at age two and a half he already delivered lectures on spiritual subjects, and that from age six he did so in English. The four techniques of happiness achievement that he taught included putting pressure on the eyes and forehead (in order to see the "Divine Light" within us), pressuring the earlobes (in order to hear the "chimes and drums of the Divine Harmony"), regurgitating the phlegm deep in the throat ("the gentle current of the elixir of life, the Divine Nectar that always flows quietly within our body") and breath meditation on "the sacred name." But there are no free lunches. The seekers of the happiness techniques first had to go through a lengthy process of apprenticeship in which they learned to devote themselves to Guru Maharaj Ji, sever their previous ties with the world (work, family, friends) and divest themselves of the opinions they had held until then. "Not to understand, not to think, only to absorb."
    The guru promised a world without laws and governments, a beautiful world, green, natural, without highways, without air-polluting vehicles, without noisy planes. The fact that he himself moved from place to place in a private plane and in a gilded Jaguar was taken as further proof of the mysterious depths of the man-god, who contradicts himself through his very beingness, which is beyond our ken. "If you do not do what the Guru tells you," the boy pronounced, "he will destroy you with a blast from his mouth. No doubt can be cast on the power of the perfect teacher. You must submit to him totally."

Escape route

While those Israelis were in Texas in the presence of the divine teenager, other Israelis flew to Puna, in northern India, where the "elected one," Bhagwan Ranjeesh (a.k.a. "Oshu"), had set up a commune of free sex. The sexual drill of life-energy ("tantric yoga") was intended to bring the practitioners to a state of mahamudara ("cosmic orgasm of coupling with the universe"). It was an offer not without its allurements: in the best case, you achieved mahamudara; if you didn't, it was no disaster, because on the way you had sex like a jerboa - and felt spiritual while doing it. Like Guru Maharaj Ji, Ranjeesh instructed his followers to discard logic, ego and ties with family and with the world. The ideas was to live "here and now." "Leave your shoes and your reason at the entrance," read the sign outside the ashram. "This world," Rajneesh explained, "is one big madhouse; what is considered culture is nothing but hypocrisy." All religions were tainted with a good/bad, do/don't-do schizophrenia. "Morality" is a mechanism of intimidation. Family, society and school are prisons.
    Shlomo Kalo, a Bulgarian-born resident of Jaffa who experienced a moment of enlightenment while riding the bus on the way to work at the Kupat Holim Klalit HMO, published a book entitled, "From the Mouth of the Buddha: A Collection of Sayings from 'The Way of Truth.'" "I was standing in the bus," Kalo said of his revelation, "when suddenly the world melted. Everything was filled with light and the faces around became eternal. They went through the time dimension, in leaps of years."
    Hermann Hesse's novel "Siddhartha," which had been recently translated into Hebrew, enabled the Israeli reader to encounter the image of the Buddha in the form of a compelling plot. The Indian option, which was revealed on the morning after the war, would not be the only path of escape from the old Israeliness. Another route would be the return to Judaism. Leaving the country, which would become a mass wave in the mid-1970s, was part of a general trend of (to use an analogy familiar to every Israeli who has served in the army) returning the equipment which Israelis had signed for until the Yom Kippur War. With or without a connection to the rise of an atmosphere of mysticism elsewhere in the world, Israeli society moved toward the post-secular, post-Zionist, postmodern "New Age."

Egoism unleashed

The collapse of the old Israeli ethos prompted some to retreat into their private shell, while others took off for parts unknown. Pinhas Sadeh, who in 1973 published a book of passionate letters written to him by 23-year-old Havatzelet Havshush, who became his lover after she read "Life as a Parable," provided his readers with an erotic-religious escape route from the Yom Kippur trauma. The telepathic cutlery bender Uri Geller, who until the war used to perform for reservists in the IDF's entertainment branch, left Israel during the war itself and acquired world fame in television appearances from Texas to Norway. But there were Israelis who stayed to experience the debacle and exact the price for it.
    Yehonatan Gefen and Ya'akov Rotblitt were foot soldiers in the Six-Day War, and for them the battle for Jerusalem, where they lost their best friends (and where Rotblitt lost a leg), was the formative influence of their Israeliness. Now they wrote barbed satires that fluctuated between plaintiveness and disgust. Mussia Tehelimzeiger, who worked for so many years to transform himself into the model Israeli named Dahn Ben Amotz, and who nourished Israeliness seemed now to regret the effort he had expended. He looked for a way out of the ethos that he himself had done so much to shape, and cast about for a substitute. The answer came from a 27-year-old philosopher who leapt into the public consciousness in 1975.
    With his youthful forelock and his bespectacled baby face, Dr. Moshe Kroy looked too young to be a spiritual authority. But with his dazzling brilliance and the insistence with which he put forward his worldview, he had a meteoric rise both as a university lecturer and as a mesmerizing subject for interviews. He was not an original thinker, nor did he present himself as such; he drew his theory of "egoistic individualism" from the writings of Ayn Rand, the apostle of capitalism.
    Kroy, who was the son of a Mapai activist, discovered capitalism when he read Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," and all at once the entire Israeli way of life, which had been cultivated by people like his father, seemed to him an abomination. Why should I live in a country that sends its sons to be killed in a war every five years? Kroy asked himself. Why should I live in a welfare state, which robs me of my money in order to give to the weak? Why should I be a part of the false moralism that prevails here, which heightens guilt feelings and self-righteous mediocrity, instead of promoting individual freedoms and achievements? Like Nietzsche decades earlier, and more recently like Ayn Rand, Kroy was revolted by the Judeo-Christian "morality of slaves" and preached a Hellenistic "morality of masters." For the Greeks, he said, there was no conflict between interest and conscience, between self-realization and the common good. Egoistic individualism was the secret of their happiness and their prosperity. Sanctimonious altruism, which demands that the individual sacrifice his desires for the sake of others, is the illness of Western culture, and capitalism is the medicine.
    Ben Amotz loved it. The bespectacled wunderkind became his guide and mentor. True, Ben Amotz hardly needed an external incentive in order to live like an unrestrained egoist - for as long as he could remember he had used his personal charm to exploit those around him without thinking twice about it - but Kroy provided him with the ideological ground that elevated his behavior into a virtue. Ben Amotz had a particularly unsavory past: the women he had abandoned, the children he had neglected, the friends he had disappointed and the oedipal childhood memories he had repressed (hatred of his father, intercourse with his mother) compelled him all his life to flee from any confrontation with the foul rag-and-bone shop of his heart. Freud terrified him. He didn't want therapy, he wanted justification; and Kroy's doctrine, as Amnon Dankner noted in his biography of Ben Amotz, fit him like a glove. He accompanied Kroy on his lecture tours around the country, stood up for him against the detractors, turned his Jaffa home into a Kroy salon and made himself Kroy's publisher and the editor of his "Life According to Reason: Conditions for Objective Happiness," which sold tens of thousands of copies in Israel.
    Kroy was the first Israeli to issue a completely unapologetic declaration to the media about his disgust with Israel and his intention to emigrate. Ben Amotz, in turn, told the press that he would also leave, if only he were younger. While considering where to live, Kroy received a tempting offer from a resident of Netanya, who told him about "Atlantis" - a worldwide secret organization of followers of Ayn Rand, which was about to establish its own state in South America. Like the other candidates for "Atlantis," Kroy was told by his contact in Netanya to abandon his wife and daughter - who were not fit for the state of the elect - and move there by himself. The offer confronted Kroy with a serious dilemma. As a rational egoist, he could have forsaken his family without suffering any pangs of conscience; but Judeo-Christian morality somehow made him uneasy, and he put the problem to Ben Amotz and asked for his advice. When the Netanya man learned that Kroy had let someone else in on the secret, he threatened to take revenge on him. Kroy broke into a cold sweat. Shortly afterward, the Netanya man was killed in a traffic accident, and Kroy was convinced it was the work of the secret organization. Fearful of being the next in line, he took his wife and daughter and hightailed it to Australia.

Hot summer nights

"Fallout of cowards" was how Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin described the emigrants from Israel in a television address on Independence Day of 1976. Emigration had long since passed the trickle stage and was on the verge of becoming a torrent. The emigrants had no need for Kroy's theories in order to justify their leaving; the Israeli ship of state was sinking and they abandoned it on the winged lifeboats that took off from the airport. Those who stayed, and longed for Uri Geller's telepathic feats and spoon-bending, received a replacement in the form of the actor Oded Teomi, who took a one-man show around the country and turned out to be quite a Geller in his own right. In his show, which he called "Above and Beyond," Teomi regaled audiences with the parapsychological phenomena he had experienced since the age of 11, and he demonstrated his telepathic powers by correctly guessing addresses and phone numbers of people in the audience and by discovering where they hid various objects while he left the hall.
    "Am I pretty?" Uri Zohar asked the viewers of his television quiz show every week, as he ran his hand through his hair. But the supposedly jesting question was tinged with corrosive bitterness and doubt: Zohar seemed to be hinting to the viewers that he was fed up with his image as the national entertainer, the self-satisfied sabra, the representative of the "beautiful (in name only) Israel," of the Nahal Troupe and the bohemian scene that had grown weary of itself. "Am I pretty?" - and you, what are you? Do you still think you're pretty? Do you run your hand through your hair, too?
    In his late-night show on Army Radio, Zohar shared with his listeners what he only hinted at on television with his ironic self-embrace. From week to week, from show to show, Zohar sounded less amused, less connected with his trademark posture of the wild, rough clown. At the end of each show he still took his leave by playing his favorite song, "On the hot nights of summer nothing happens," which reflected, indirectly, the magic of the lost days of the "Lul" group; but the nights were no longer the same nights. Something was happening to Uri Zohar, and his listeners heard the process live.
    Two years earlier, in his film "Big Eyes," with a screenplay by the writer Yaakov Shabtai, Zohar had displayed disgust that bordered on self-flagellation. The film's protagonist, Benny Furman, played by Zohar, was barely a fictional character. Zohar didn't act, he simply served himself up as he was: an ageing libertine, impulsive, consumed by emptiness, scurrying every which way in hopeless attempts to seize the elusive moment. Through the desperate craving of Benny Furman, the greed of the husband of "big eyes" who heaps his plate with more than his stomach can hold, Zohar signaled to the film's viewers that he was sick of himself. His life had reached a dead end. Darkness was descending, and as it grew thicker he yearned increasingly for light. He ruffled his hair but felt that something was missing. While Zohar tried to rekindle his inner light, his friend from the "Lul" days, Ya'akov Rotblitt, was consumed by a new love that turned his life inside out. "I want you to meet someone," the entertainer Dori Ben Ze'ev told him one night when he gave him a lift out of town. Limping on his wooden leg, Rotblitt got out of the car and followed Ze'ev as he knocked on his friend's door. When the door opened and Rotblitt's eyes were seized by the figure of Rina Shani, it was a one-way ticket. They started talking, and the conversation lasted a year. Rotblitt stopped writing his satirical column for Ha'aretz. Rotblitt disappeared. He was with Shani as a full-time occupation, breathing deeply of her room, where books of philosophy filled every space, learning, recharging himself, writing his own book. At the end of a year, he stuffed the manuscript of the book into a rucksack and flew with his love to America.

Sirius fishing

    By now, thousands of Israelis were practicing transcendental meditation, undergoing self-immersion for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening. The enthusiasts among them, who tasted of the absolute and found it pleasing, enhanced their routine by doing "yoga flying" (a technique of jumping from a cross-legged position), which accelerates the spiritual development of the disciple and the disintegration of the mattress beneath the disciple. In Jerusalem a branch opened of the Moonies, an anti-Semitic Christian sect whose Korean founder, Sun Myung Moon, declared that he was the messiah and that present-day Israel would be supplanted by "the third Israel" - meaning, the followers of his church. On Mars, a face was discovered. A photograph sent back by the American spaceship Viking showed a large tract of stone with an area of several kilometers that looked like a human face looking heavenward as though wondering whether there is life in the universe - apart from Mars, of course. In the Judean Desert the artist Avraham Ofek climbed a hill and laid out strips of cloth which, viewed from the sky, assumed the shapes of mythic creatures. Ofek, who came from the heart of socialist secularism, spent a year in Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he was captivated by the legends of the Hebrew sages. What would he have thought if he had known that while he was putting together his heavenly installation in the Judean Desert, a highly disturbing heavenly installation of a different kind had been discovered in a remote corner of another desert?
    In the southern Sahara Desert, near Timbuktu, Robert Temple, an astronomer, found a godforsaken tribe whose legends contained astronomical knowledge that was equal to the latest findings of Western astronomy. Without any equipment to observe the stars, the tribe, called Dogon, knew from earliest times that the sun is the center of our planetary system, that the moon revolves around the Earth, that the planets follow elliptical rather than circular orbits, that Jupiter has moons and Saturn has rings. But that was small change compared with what the tribesmen told Temple about Sirius - the brightest star in the heavens - which was at the center of their rituals. The tribe's ancient tradition has it that Sirius is not a lone star but one of a set of three: a central star, a second star (made, they said, of "very heavy material") which revolves around it in a 50-year cycle, and a third star, which revolves around the first two in a remote orbit.
    Temple couldn't believe it. What he heard from the members of the Saharan tribe was astonishingly similar to what he knew as a scientist. In 1862, astronomers had discovered a star revolving around Sirius; in 1928 this had been found to be a "white dwarf," meaning that its mass is so dense that a spoonful of its matter would weigh several tons. Later measurements had determined that it revolves around Sirius once every 50.04 years. True, telescopes had not spotted a third star in the group, but even if the tribe was wrong on this point, how in the world did they know about those other things?
"Ten thousand years ago," they told Temple, "we were visited by the
Nomos. They told us about it."
"The who?"
"The Nomos. They came from Sirius. In ships from the sky."
"What did they look like?"
"Like people, from the stomach up."
"And from the stomach down?"
"Like fish."
    Pale, mouth agape, Temple took his leave of the tribe and returned to England to write their story. Some 2,300 years ago, a Babylonian scholar stated that Mesopotamian civilization was founded by creatures that were half-human, half-fish. The Philistines worshipped a god, Dagon, that was also an amphibious creature like this. In South America, in China, in the mythologies of various peoples, the same story recurs, about fish-people who came from somewhere once upon a time and then vanished. The founding generation.

Israeli society, in the throes of a severe identity crisis, turned to a fast-growing array of 'alternative' movements, from international   successes like Scientology and est to homegrown variations such as  Emin and DAAT. Alarmed officials and frightened parents set out to  eradicate the 'cults.' Meanwhile, the Sephardim were flexing their  newfound muscles.

    On a pastoral ranch in California, by a lake where ducks floated serenely by, Adam and Eve sat and took pleasure in time's flow and in the breeze that wafted across the water. Ya'akov Rotblitt was happy to be with Rina Shani, and had it been up to him he would not have altered a thing in the enchanted reality that cradled their love from day to day. But his lover, who until then had taken only soft drugs, decided to try LSD. And the woman saw that it was good, a feast for both body and mind. And her eyes were opened. "From that fateful day," she would later relate, "I felt as though I had become one with the cosmos. I just flew through one huge happening, and since then I haven't stopped flying. The waves of enlightenment that visited me transported me into transcendental dimensions. The stuff brought me to the peak of receptivity and attentiveness.". Maybe she became enlightened, maybe she just had some good trips; one way or the other, Shani now appointed herself - and was appointed by others who encountered her - a spiritual guide. The love nest became a home for those in search of themselves, who sought Shani's wisdom. Shani tried to involve Rotblitt in her circle of followers. "Sorry, honey," he said, "but I'd rather meet you outside reception hours." He packed and caught the next plane to Israel. His backpack did not hold the draft of the book on which he had labored for a year. Shani, who read the manuscript and wasn't turned on by it, told him the best thing would be for him to burn it, which he did.
    The Israel to which Rotblitt returned was thirsty for doctrines and mentors. In a converted movie theater in Ramat Hasharon the first Israeli branch of the Emin movement was opened. Its founder, Raymond Armin, also known as "Leo," was a former Encyclopaedia Britannica salesman who made a new career as a sect leader after he declared bankruptcy. His doctrine was as tangled as hair that hasn't been combed for two years and as secret as a cache of dollars in a Polish home. "Under no circumstances mention what is written here to anyone outside the group," Leo ordered in his classified writings. "People will not understand you, they are incapable. There is a huge discrepancy between your level and their level. Do not cast your pearls before swine, lest they turn again and rend you."
    He perceived himself as a modern Pythagoras. "In the secret Pythagorean society," he reminded his disciples, "the members vowed to preserve absolute secrecy, and when one of them broke the vow and leaked a few secrets, they drowned him in the bathtub." An impermeable wall of secrecy surrounded the group's meetings: no entry to strangers, no comment to the press. In the electric cave of their "center" in Ramat Hasharon, the members of the secret band sat around and discussed Leo's neo-Pythagorean mysteries, which married scientific discoveries and interpretations of astrological signs to the esoteric essence of numbers in ancient cultures. New meaning was conferred on Jewish holidays. Tu Bishvat (Arbor Day), for example, was celebrated as a "day of solidarity with nature and the planet." Entering the sect entailed making a total break with one's previous world. "Bury the past," Leo ordered, "and forget where you buried it."
    Yehoshua Givon, a mathematics professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, opened an Israeli branch of the Scientology organization. Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer, who explained that his doctrine meant "knowing how to know." It involved total knowledge, he declared, which would bring spiritual freedom and immortality. Like Leo, Hubbard also struck a threatening, paranoid posture. "If you oppose Scientology, we will find out your crimes and expose them. Anyone who tries to make life difficult for us will be in immediate danger." Wherever they went, the Scientologists found enemies who were trying to undermine its work: psychiatrists, tax authorities, journalists, concerned parents, former scientologists and "troublemakers" inside the organization.
    Like Emin, Scientology also aimed to erase the past of those who joined it, to "heal them of the education they received" and to attain a "lucid" state in which the scientologist controls matter and energy, is severed from the body and moves forward and backward in time and space. The scientologist's body is immune to the world's afflictions, to illness and to radioactivity. Mankind will be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. Not the scientologists.
    On the streets of Tel Aviv the group's activists urged passersby to visit the local branch and take a personality test consisting of 200 questions, which would determine whether they needed Scientology to enhance their lives (everyone who took the test turned out to need Scientology). The recruitment of new members was based on identifying individuals in distress. Recruiters were urged to scan the papers every day, taking particular note of the death notices and reports about accidents, and to send a pamphlet of the organization to the mourners' address. The greater the suffering, the scientologists knew, the greater the yearning for joy and happiness.

Hello, hello Jerusalem

    In 1978, Eastern philosophy, which hitherto had been translated into Hebrew only by members of the Underground of Yearning, received academic recognition. In the humanities faculties of the three big universities, Ben-Ami Sharfstein, Shlomo Biederman, Dan Daour and Yoel Hoffman lectured to overflowing halls on the various wisdoms of the East. "Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance," the story of Robert Pirsig's philosophical quest for values, newly translated into Hebrew, impacted powerfully on the self-searchers, who identified with the message embedded in the book (abandonment of the Western aspiration for "truth" in favor of Zen Buddhist training in the quality of day-to-day endeavor). Science fiction books flooded the market and Israeli sci-fi addicts made a new Israeli magazine, "Fantasia 2000," a cult item.
    Rami Fortis, dressed in a tank driver's overalls and wearing heavy makeup, screamed out punk songs that would have been at home in any closed ward, and the turned-on audience felt that Tel Aviv had at last been transformed into London. In an article summing up the year, the pop magazine Lehiton wrote that the punk fashion that was spreading in Israel reflected "nullity, boredom and a brain meltdown among the young generation." In Jonestown, Guyana, 900 members of the People's Temple cult committed suicide at the behest of their leader, the clergyman Jim Jones, by drinking poison from a large pot that was placed in the courtyard of their estate. And in Magdiel, in the Sharon area, Rina Shani, back from the United States, founded a sect of young admirers, most of them kibbutzniks.
    She was no longer called Rina Shani. She had changed her name to Rain Shine, and she also bestowed on her followers phosphorescent names to reflect their quest for enlightenment. "Blessed be you, O Lord, creator of cultured cannabis," the disciples intoned with their mentor as she passed grass among them and they drifted out to commune with the sunset. When they entered her room, they bowed to her. "What I say," she told them, "does not come from me. It is from god. I have shed my personality, my name, everything. These things only pass through me like spirit." From Magdiel she moved with her pupils to Zichron Ya'akov. They obeyed her, protected her, they worked as day laborers to feed her. She was their world. Their parents never saw them. "Parents," Rain Shine told them, "crucify their children and infuse them with guilt, fears and dependence."
    She had nothing better to say about  marriage, school, military service, psychology and intellectuals. She called her followers "survivors." In their encounters she worked with them on "exploding their consciousness" as a precondition for the revelation of the pure soul, which had experienced reincarnations without number. Occasionally she was questioned by the police for possession of drugs, and she spent time in prison. The papers, which rehashed her story over and over, imbued her with a demonic image of a "trader in errant souls," and noted one or two instances of suicide among the young people who were admitted to her community. Unlike the scientologists or the followers of Emin, Rain Shine had genuine cause to feel persecuted. Rotblitt, who had loved her when she was Rina Shani, was now as remote from her as Jerusalem is from Zichron Ya'akov. "Thus I Liberated Jerusalem," his solo album of 1979, was his first work to deviate from the pop song genre. It wasn't a collection of songs but an ongoing personal and political message, which perhaps compensated for the irrecoverable burned manuscript. "At four in the morning, amazingly enough, I was visited by the word of God. He said: Man, heed me well, buy yourself a guitar and go into the street. Lightning flashed angrily, thunder clapped boldly, everything around went dark and the whole scene faded. I was haunted by a kind of god, scowling without a face, you go up to him on a ladder, you see him in the clouds. At night by the table, and mirrors around me, I joined note to note and connected letter to letter."
    The Rotblitt of 1979 was no longer the Tel Aviv bohemian who had made merry with the members of the "Lul" group 10 years earlier. Jerusalem, which had cost him his leg and to which he returned from the U.S., was revealed to him as the place where a turbulent beat pounded of which superficial Tel Aviv was totally unaware. The depth of Jerusalem's past and the sense of the end of things that suffused the city woke in his soul feelings that had lain dormant since Bible classes in high school and his 1958 bar mitzvah in "red" Haifa. Striking a jesting note, but gripped by a genuine core of the Jerusalem experience, he let his verses communicate with God and with the prophets at the gates. "Hello, hello Jerusalem, I'm standing in your gates again, guitar on my shoulder, a prodigal son returns to you. I sent our Father in heaven an urgent letter, on your walls, O Jerusalem, I have stationed the forces of the Border Police. Don't ask what all the signs and portents mean, I've lost touch with the organization of hit-makers. The holy city is so weird on the way back, frauds run for the Knesset and jokers learn Gemara. Everything proceeds by the book. Who wrote the script? The Jews are coming back home to the divine comedy."
    "The Jews" didn't mean only Uri Zohar. Rotblitt was well aware of the direction society was taking. "The wind brings messianic longings to the street that is paved with scriptural dreams." In the face of the thrust to religion, he knew, the secular society, which had deteriorated to the level of the American subculture, had nothing to offer. "Mount Sinai is still held by our forces, but the stone tablets are in the United States." We are sinking, he felt, and we haven't a clue how to stop the process. The state is a temporary adventure and it's trembling on its axis. "If the wall is suddenly breached, dear God, tell me, then what? Who will we blame? If this ship suddenly sinks, dear God, give me an answer, tell me where I'm headed?"
    Messianic Jerusalem, Rotblitt saw, the rightist-hawkish Jerusalem - its face engraved with "hills covered with graves, mosques, houses of worship, nations awaiting redemption that will arrive at the edge of the sword" - had been the focus of the state's being since the political upheaval of 1977. Not Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv, secular, leftist, merely chewed the nostalgic cud and dabbled in idle prattle about "peace," deluding itself into thinking that it was the center of things, autistic to the intensity of the developments elsewhere, to what was happening in the city where Israelis become Jews.

Magnetic fields

    "In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching," by P.D. Ouspensky, was translated into Hebrew in 1979 by members of a group that met to study the teachings of Gurdjieff. P.R. Sarkar, the leader of the violent Ananda Marga ("The Path of Bliss") cult, visited Israel and won followers for his doctrine. "We can no longer tolerate society as it is," he said. "Its death is certain. Let us not hesitate to shake up the world." By "shaking up" he meant blowing up embassies, assassinating public figures, cleaning up the territory. "Project Kibbutz," formed by a group of Christian fundamentalists from Oklahoma, spread out among the kibbutzim of Upper Galilee (Dan, Yiftah, Dafna, Gonen) where its members threw themselves into missionary work. They were welcomed as volunteers, but only after they had become involved in the various branches of the kibbutzim was their true motive revealed: Given that the Latter Days are nigh, and with them the return of Jesus to the Holy Land, it would be a good thing to be in Israel when the event occurs and to redeem as many locals as possible while there's still time. When the kibbutz chiefs discovered who they were dealing with, they ordered the volunteers to pack their bags and hightail it. They left, taking with them 15 kibbutzniks whom they had converted to Christianity.
    In Jaffa, a group of followers, known as "DAAT" (Hebrew acronym, meaning knowledge, standing for "know yourself always") gathered around Shlomo Kalo. The group's symbol, "Y," was composed of a "V" grafted onto an "I," meaning "victory over the ego." In order to liberate themselves, like Kalo, from bondage to the ego and from selfish desires, the group's members practiced sitting in silence, abstained from sex and constantly intoned: "absolute purity." In a way similar to other spiritual guides who preach that "the truth does not lie in books," Kalo published a steady flow of books at the rate of one or two a year. The DAAT group, which upon its founding in 1979 numbered only four pupils, would over the years gain additional adherents, among them the singers Rivka Zohar and Shoshik Shani, the actor Shlomo Bar-Abba and the journalist Odetta Schwartz-Danin. But Kalo's many books, which spread around the country like ripples from their center in Jaffa, influenced even individuals who never met their author. As part of operation "Judaize Galilee," launched by the government in 1980, two mitzpim - hilltop "observation communities" (the point being to observe the Arabs below) - named Harduf and Hararit were established in Western Galilee. Each of them was actually the Israeli branch of an international association. Together with Yodfat, the Schechterian community which had been alone in the area for 22 years, the two new communities formed a spiritual triangle that would set the tone of the "New Age" atmosphere soon to prevail in the cluster of communities known as the Segev Bloc. Harduf, a kibbutz of the anthroposophic movement, was led by Yeshayahu Ben Aharon. "We are creating magnetic fields," Ben Aharon declared, "fields that will attract the grace and abundance of the higher forces. After having experienced on our flesh for a hundred years the curse of the wasteland, of a spiritless and meaningless culture, we have the ability to become reacquainted with our identity and with the source from which we will draw the vision and the strength to build our future." Those who joined Harduf underwent a year's training in the doctrine of Rudolph Steiner under the tutelage of Ben Aharon and his associates in the community's leadership. To deepen their studies, they were sent to the Free School of the Humanities in Dornach, Switzerland, the world center of the anthroposophic movement.
    The Hararit community, perched high above a lush valley, was set up by practitioners of transcendental meditation who wanted to meditate together and live right, according to the comprehensive doctrine of the Maharishi. Like the members of Harduf, the residents of Hararit believed that the very fact of their sitting together on meditation mats created a kind of magnetic field that spread a beneficent influence on the surroundings. The "Maharishi effect," as they called it, was based on a mathematical calculation of the radius of influence achieved by group meditation exercise on the space extending from Hararit to the four winds. In order to achieve a radius that would benefit the entire country, they needed, according to their calculations, 200 meditators. In the meantime, they barely had 20, and their influence extended at most to the Arab villages below.

Arise ye Sephardim

    In the United States the New Age went into high gear. A count of the American enlightenment movements revealed the existence of some 600 non-Christian mystic groups (from Eastern ashrams to witches' covens, voodoo organizations and satanic sects) and 900 Christian orders operating outside the recognized church establishment. Marilyn Ferguson's book "The Aquarian Conspiracy" explained the cardinal tenets of the new ethos. According to Ferguson, whose book was published in 1980, mankind was about to enter a "millennium of love and light" which would be a break with human history. She hailed new developments in science and society as evidence of "a new cultural paradigm" emphasizing greater realization of the individual's physical, mental, and spiritual potential. The conspirators of the title are those individuals who reject the stifling nature of contemporary society and work to transform themselves into more fully realized humans. "The Aquarian conspiracy promotes the autonomous individual in a decentralized society," she declared. "Human nature is neither good nor bad but open to continuous transformation and transcendence." The "old gods of nationalism and isolationism" were passing from the world, and with them reliance on "factual rationalism in place of intuition." The human brain, she wrote, would transcend the limitations of physics and "develop a different type of consciousness."
    On the bookshelves next to Ferguson's volume stood "The Cult Explosion" by Dave Hunt, in which the author revealed to his readers that UFOs are actually "satanic revelations" from another dimension that were about to change the method of human thinking. The UFO entities that supposedly came into physical contact with human beings always spouted the four lies that the snake revealed to Eve. These creatures were devils and they were preparing the ground for the advent of "the anti-Christ."
    The religious tension that intensified in the United States in 1980 also escalated in the northern region of the Muslim world. In a burst of unbridled jihadism, Iran, which a year before had undergone a radical religious revolution under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, launched a holy war against its neighbor, Iraq. Iran sent its children to be blown to bits on the landmines along the border and their bereaved mothers cheered at the martyrdom of the fruit of their wombs and hurried to give birth to new divisions of suicides. Every Iranian mother was given two keys - green and red - one of which she wore around her neck, while the other was given to her little boy when he left for the campaign in which he would be blasted into paradise. A fountain spouting red water was installed in a Tehran square, and the "blood" that flowed from it incessantly streamed from the eyes of Allah's soldiers.
    In Jerusalem's Baka neighborhood, swastikas were painted on the walls next to the inscriptions "Death to the Ashkenazim" and "Arise ye Sephardis." During the 1981 election campaign ethnic hostility swelled into a no-holds-barred, bellicose Sephardi revolt. Intellectuals gathered in Tel Aviv's Tzavta Club for a gloomy discussion on what had gone wrong with the Israeli Labor Movement. They knew that it was too late: the very talk about "working Israel" was now an anachronism that heard only its own mutterings. The new Israelis didn't attend discussions at Tzavta; they went to the stock exchange and to the stores that sold color televisions, new cars and dishwashers. The captains of television, who were among the last vestiges of "working Israel," forced on the public a sing-along show with the inimitable Saraleh Sharon in a program of "Songs of Mother Russia in Hebrew Dress," broadcast from the lawn of Kibbutz Geva. The next day their error was made clear to them. Eli Tavor, writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, lambasted the program as "insensitivity and arrogance of the disciples of Western culture, who truly believe that the culture of which they are the products is superior and preferable to that of Sephardi culture, which they consider retarded and primitive." Not long afterward, a variation on Tavor's savage attack was voiced by Menachem Begin, who on the eve of the elections called kibbutzniks "arrogant millionaires."
    The young people of Tel Aviv continued to splash around in their punkist bubble. "Mom, I don't want to get clean," the Click group wailed. "Country, I wasn't born a soldier, I'm sick of being your subject, I want to end the nightmare, it was a horrible trip." Rami Fortis kept up his screaming (with his group, the Chromosomes), Doron Eyal (known as "Schultz the terrible") screened short films of stylized secularism, and the musical duo of Ilan Virtzberg and Shimon Gelbatz put out a psychedelic album of poems by Yona Wallach that were set to music. But Tel Aviv was no longer the center of anything; its culture was addressed extensively in the papers and broadcast tiresomely on the radio only because the media people were part of the same milieu. Outside the bubble, the debut album of Zohar Argov sold 200,000 copies virtually overnight.

The great whore of Babylon

    Ilana Zuckerman, who interviewed the writer Yaakov Shabtai on the radio following the 1981 elections, asked for his thoughts about the process that Israeli society was undergoing. "This thing," he replied, "makes me shudder and depresses me tremendously. I am frightened at the face of the brutalization, the vulgarization, the unenlightenment and the hatred of culture that is spreading across the country. It has become part of the bon ton here, and that is very disturbing. I see these phenomena as a threat to the future of the country. It could bring about the destruction of the state." Shabtai died a few days after the interview.
    Dahn Ben Amotz sat in his Jaffa home, the masts of the yachts in the harbor visible through the window, and corresponded with Moshe Kroy, who was still in Australia. Kroy sent him the manuscript of his second book, "Logical Proofs for the Existence of the Soul." Ben Amotz saw it through publication, as he had Kroy's first book. But the new work seemed to have been written by a different person. Kroy had discovered the soul. Something mystical had crept into his writing, even though his arguments were still backed up by rationalist logic that made it philosophically kosher. Ben Amotz did not like what he read, and when he published the book his heart wasn't really in it. With or without "logical proofs," the soul, for Ben Amotz was just a pain in the ass.
    Oded Teomi, having crisscrossed the country hundreds of times with his one-man show "Above and Beyond," now staged a new show, even more mystical than the first, called "Signs and Portents." The actor told about a trip he had made to the caves of the tzadikim (just men) in Safed (in one of which the spirit of Yosef Caro was revealed to him) after his dead father appeared to him in a dream in the form of a cuckoo-bird that popped out of a clock and chirped the words, "a bird will suddenly come." When he awoke, Teomi realized that the message hidden in the cuckoo-bird's words was revealed when the phrase was compressed into its initials, which in Hebrew spelled Tzfat, or Safed. Something, or someone, was waiting for him in Safed, and he had to betake himself there, come what may. Teomi mustered up all his acting skills to play the bizarre characters he met on his journey, and he did it so well that many of the viewers wondered whether the story was true or an invention. Some people actually became penitents after seeing the show. Ron Koulton, the musician who backed up Teomi, became a yeshiva student while the show was on the road. Teomi, appalled at having unintentionally driven some Israelis to religion, closed the show at the height of its success.
    A religious upheaval overcame the painter Moshe Gershuni. Until 1981, Gershuni was a conceptual, minimalist, intellectual painter of drawings with a delicate line on almost empty canvases. Yet now, like the sudden onslaught of a nervous breakdown, Gershuni's work changed beyond recognition. Kneeling on all fours on the studio floor, Gershuni smeared his canvases with a mindbending whirlpool of red and mustard, like a boy playing with his excretions. But it was precisely from this descent into bodily secretions, precisely out of a swirling of colors that looked like puke, feces, blood and semen - out of this Gershuni extracted ecstatic qualities of prayer. A Star of David and a crucifix appeared in some paintings. Between the spurts of mire and the tubes of mud Gershuni inscribed passages from the siddur, the prayer book. "And He is compassionate will expiate sin and will not destroy and His anger was much abated and He will not unleash His full wrath," he scrawled across one of the turbulent canvases, like a prankster seeking redemption in the gutter.
    "The Torments of Job," Hanoch Levin's play, which was the sequel to "Execution," revealed a crucial fact, which was hinted at in Levin's earlier works but now was unmistakably obvious. Levin, it became clear in "The Torments of Job," viewed the world through Christian eyes. Job's death in severe agony, his rear end impaled by a steel rod and clowns mocking him with Schadenfreude, was a transparent allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus; the stage technique of the play was a clear gesture to the medieval morality and mystery plays; and the abhorrence that the play expressed toward the human condition, the absolute despair of this world, the empty cry to the heavens - all this was entirely congruent with the turning of one's back to the world that was conceived in Gnosis and consummated in Christianity. A year later when Levin staged the third play in the sequence, "The Great Whore of Babylon," any lingering doubts as to the sources of the trilogy were dispelled. The very title of the play sent viewers to Chapter 17 in the Revelation of John, and the plot, which placed at its center a satan in the guise of a woman and equality between life and death, was more Christian in its essence than anything written in Israel before or since.

A new type of person

Not far from Rotblitt's home in Jerusalem's Abu Tor neighborhood, Israelis who returned from Puna set up a tantric commune, Oshu-style, and next to it a restaurant called "Zorba the Buddha." Throughout the country psychological marathons were conducted by the est organization, whose founder, Werner Erhard, began his professional life - like Leo, the founder of Emin - as an encyclopedia salesman. "What is, is, and what is not, is not," Erhard told the participants in the marathon sessions, revealing the profound wisdom he had perhaps gleaned from Parmenides, or perhaps hewed from his heart. "Mankind," he declared, "is on the brink of a psycho-phsyiological mutation from which will emerge a new type of human being" - spiritually exalted, transcending matter and free of the moral norms of the past. In the meantime, the Lebanon War, which erupted in the spring of 1982 and mired the Israeli army in mud that was even thicker than a Gershuni painting, was accompanied by an ongoing astrological analysis in the newspapers. "Mars has projected a disharmonious aspect on Venus," was how one paper explained the cruddy situation between Jounieh and the Shouf Mountains.
    Zevulun Hammer was fed up. In his capacity as minister of education and culture he appointed an interministerial commission of inquiry headed by MK Miriam Tassa-Glazer "on the matter of the mystic cults in Israel." Hammer was frightened, and he was not the only one. Years late, as is the wont of elected officials, Hammer finally discovered how widespread the phenomenon had become. He did not establish the commission in an effort to understand the cults; his aim, as a Jew faithful to his heritage, was to fight them and eradicate them in Israel. But his concern about the cults blinded him to what had already begun to creep into Judaism itself. The New Age has many faces, and the thrust toward the mystical-redemptive, engineered by a return to occultism, to charms and amulets, did not take place only in the Judaism substitutes. It also occurred in the house of Judaism itself. In India, Rain Shine wrote a letter home in a trembling hand. "I am writing with a fever, mother. I was not happy in India, I only fell in love with the Himalayas, and now, exhausted, I am waiting here for the miracle of getting my strength back. I love the place, how God summoned up nature, nature, plenty of nature." It was her last letter. She died of hepatitis, at the age of 46. Havatzelet Havshush, 34, Pinhas Sadeh's lover, committed suicide. Yona Wallach, 40, was dying of cancer. But they are not the reason that the year of 1984 will be remembered, nor will it be remembered because it was the Hebrew year tashmad, from the word for destruction, a fact that deeply preoccupied the astrologists, the numerologists, the media and even Zevulun Hammer, who suggested evading the decree by changing the order of the Hebrew letters that stand for the numerals of the year. No, if 1984 was a landmark in the history of the Israeli ethos, it was because that year saw the founding of a new party, called Sephardi Torah Guardians - Shas, for short.

As apocalyptic prophecies proliferated all over the world, and cult  leaders directed their followers to annihilate themselves, Jews  everywhere were entranced by the messianic vision of the Lubavitcher  Rebbe. And in Israel, the cataclysmic assassination of Yitzhak Rabin  was followed by candlelit vigils in the Square and marathon trance parties.

In 1990 a human tidal wave began washing over Israel. Few of the new arrivals, from Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union, were Zionists. Their affinity to Jewishness, as a national consciousness and as a heritage, was superficial, if not feeble. They were not olim who "went up" to Israel, they were immigrants. Problems of subsistence in disintegrating Russia induced them to head for a country that was a barely acceptable compromise: worse than the United States, but preferable to Georgia or Kazakhstan. Almost overnight, half a million Uzbekis, Ukrainians, Latvians and Azerbeijanis gave Israel's population a substantial boost and tilted the scales even more tellingly toward the post-Zionist side. It wasn't the first wave of immigration in the state's history that was characterized by alienation toward the Zionist-Israeli ethos; the immigrants from North Africa, in the 1950s, turned away from the "Israeli way," which had failed to absorb them, and never ceased to settle accounts with the native-born Israelis. But the alienation of the newcomers from Russia was far more pronounced and far more principled, stemming, as it did, not from a sense of inferiority but from its opposite: a sense of superiority. Israel, from the Russians' point of view, was a Levantine province, a cultural wasteland, a Third World backwater. Their attitude was summed up by the late playwright Nissim Aloni, who in one of his plays called Israel "a banana republic in awakening Africa."
    They arrived not only with their belongings, they also brought their theater and their literature, which they uprooted from Moscow and transplanted to Tel Aviv without any intention of acclimatizing themselves here. Like the Russian emigres who fled the Revolution in 1917 and went on to conduct their cultural life in Berlin and Paris, the new arrivals in Israel also found no use for the local language and held the culture of the locals in deep disdain. They put out newspapers in Russian, printed books in Russian, set up a political party and held their internal discussions like an autarkic community that takes nothing from its surroundings and gives nothing in return. It was a period of post-Zionist "multiculturalism," with the idea of the melting pot denounced as an unpardonable sin of the founders' generation. So the Russians' insularity was not perceived as a threat to the remnant of solidarity that somehow was still managing to at least partly heal the rifts in Israeli society. That society did not launch any sort of unifying campaign or make serious integration demands of the Russians, for the simple reason that it no longer made such demands of itself.
    "I have dreams about the empire's death. I have news about the empire's death. Because Judgment Day is on the doorstep. I see how we'll ascend in a storm to heaven, the earth will split apart, ho, hora, and the orchestra will play on the Temple Mount, and the cabbages will burst forth in chorus." The new album by Ya'akov Rotblitt, "Letters from the Fourth House," expressed a desperate acceptance of the state's destruction. "From the city's alleys and its towers, the vestiges of the beauty of a dead kingdom, this is Ir-Shalem that is captive to its halves, the tribes fighting over its dead body. Candles are lit in the Holy Sepulcher, where the apostles have lost their good tidings. I got it in the head from some stone, and I also drank from the incendiary bottle."
    Near the southern town of Mitzpeh Ramon, Erica Knoller, 73, a clinical psychologist, set up a spiritualist commune that engaged in the cultivation of "positive energy" and love. The holistic, eclectic ethos of the New Age was reflected in the commune's name, "May We Discover," which enabled it to be interpreted both as a kabbalistic acronym (standing, in the Hebrew, for "root, soul, body, dress, temple") and as a word in Sanskrit, referring to "the individual's communication with the infinite."
    In Tel Aviv and Haifa, members of the Physical Immortality cult held meetings. Its three American founders, a woman and two men, denied that human beings were mortal. "You create death," they intoned, "because you don't know anything else. The genetic code can be halted. There is no logical reason to grow old and decay. Immortality is the natural state, but humanity has forsaken it. We have discovered it anew."
    Israelis who did not join Physical Immortality continued to perish in the way of all flesh. At the funeral of Miriam Ben Aharon, in Kibbutz Givat Haim Meuhad, Yitzhak Ben Aharon and his two sons stood by the open grave surrounded by members of the kibbutz and veterans of the Labor Movement. Yeshayahu, the younger son, eulogized his mother like an anthroposophist taking leave of a soul that is about to continue its journey. "All those young, virginal, feminine figures that you started to mold in the last two years of your life were reflections of the powers of the woman carrying the body of her 33-year-old son who has just been taken down from the cross. I saw you, Miriam, in the form of Miriam the eternal young mother, and I knew that I was seeing your true image. I understood the years of my youth with you, how you could give birth in my heart to the secret of the resurrection, the life-force that is thrust into resurrection within and by death. May it come to pass that in the future more and more people experience their passage into the worlds of the spirit." And as he eulogized her with those words, half a million people in Ukraine claimed that Mary had passed by in the sky above their heads and promised them that all would be well.

Getting ready for the messiah

    In the winter of 1991, 39 Scud missiles struck Israel. Fatalities were amazingly few: One man died of fear when the thunder of the missile landing next to his home induced a heart attack. Another was killed by falling debris in his apartment building. The 40 days of terror that were visited on Israel, and the feeling that the hand of God was involved in the fact that the missiles struck everything apart from people, intensified the atmosphere of the End and enhanced the prestige of rabbis, kabbalists and bringers of penitence, who invoked the miracle of the salvation to prove to all and sundry that we have no one to rely on other than our father in heaven. "Prepare for the advent of the messiah," the yellow posters of Chabad announced immediately after the Gulf War. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was no longer one more tzaddik in the field with a closed circle of followers. He was "King Messiah" (or moshioch) and his Hasidim were his army of salvation. True, Judaism had known a few messiahs before the Lubavitcher Rebbe - Shlomo Molcho, the Ramhal, Reb Nachman from Bratslav - but not since the mass following generated by Shabbatai Zevi in 1666 had Judaism seen anything like this kind of explicit, sweeping, personal-messianic campaign. In order to expedite the era of redemption, the Hasidim took up positions from Yokne'am to Katmandu, traveling in vans ("mitzvos tanks") plastered over with stickers and posters and a loudspeaker on the roof. If they came across a Jew along the way, they bound him with tefillin, blessed the lulav with him, redeemed another atom of his soul. The Lubavitcher Rebbe never visited Israel. He waited for the auspicious, propitious moment. The Scuds were the sign; they were the birthpangs of the messiah, after which redemption was to occur without delay. In Brooklyn, the Rebbe's followers walked about with beepers stuffed into their belts in order to get constant updates on his movements. They lived with suitcases at the ready. Dozens of jumbo jets were set to fly them with their messiah to the Land of Israel.
    In the stadium at Yad Eliahu, in south Tel Aviv, the aged Rabbi Schach excoriated the state and its secularization before a crowd of 10,000 men. "The kibbutzniks," he declared, "are eaters of rabbits and other abominations." The kibbutzniks and the Tel Avivians who were now riding the wave of the penitence movement did not attend the yeshivas run by Schach and his Lithuanians. They wanted ecstasy, not Gemarra in Aramaic, and that ardor was supplied by Chabad and the Bratslavers: let yourself dance and let yourself shout, let yourself be happy, just love. The influx of Russians was joined by a wave of Ethiopian Jews: another tale of alienation, the torments of immigration, one more step on the journey to disintegration.
    In Britain, by contrast, the public breathed a collective sigh of relief. The mystery of the geometric forms in the wheatfields of Cornwall was solved as abruptly as it had appeared when two good lads from Southampton admitted that they were responsible for the prank. As to why, for God's sake, they had done it, that was one of those questions to which the only answer is another question: Why not? For years they went out to the fields at night carrying boards and beat the stalks to the ground, not forgetting to sign the initials of their names at the corner of their works. Now they were tired of it. They were 60, their backs hurt, they were too old for this kind of stuff, schlepping planks back and forth. And it's really cold at night. Waco, Oslo, Brooklyn
    Two veteran Palmachniks got a new lease on life in 1992. Yitzhak Rabin won the elections and S. Yizhar went back to publishing fiction. After a silence of 30 years, Yizhar published four books in quick succession in which he returned to the orchards, the fields, the byways and the wildflowers of his childhood, and the few remaining Israelis who could identify with him were enraptured. The Lubavitcher Rebbe's state of health deteriorated sharply. Messiah or not, the man was already 80-something and his body had its own say. To his followers in Israel and abroad, all this was one more proof of the approaching time of his revelation. The reason for his illness was that "the messiah shall suffer for the sins of Israel." He would reveal himself, they said, on his next birthday.
    The United States government funded a new NASA project to scan the heavens in the hope of stumbling across a radio frequency of a far-away civilization. In the meantime, though, the skies broadcast only a uniform bleep of the kind you can hear on Israeli radio on Yom Kippur. An American spaceship made its way out of the solar system carrying explanations for aliens that were prepared by Carl Sagan. In Saudi Arabia, the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abd al-Aziz Ibn-Ba'az, issued a religious ruling that the world is flat. Anyone claiming it is round is a heretic and deserves to be punished, he said. On October 28, 20,000 South Koreans from Seoul gathered in expectation that someone would seize them by the neck and hurl them heavenward. In the months preceding the event, many had been seized by apocalyptic visions. One woman dreamed that the world had been destroyed and that a voice had whispered to her: "1992." Another woman saw the digits "28.10.92" hovering in the air above the golf course on which she was standing. A third woman saw the same fateful date engraved for an instant in the sink as she bent over to brush her teeth. All three were wrong. It happens.
    In the first two months of 1993, the United States followed, with increasingly frayed nerves, the siege imposed by FBI agents at the Mount Carmel compound in Waco, Taxas. Following weeks upon weeks of vain attempts to negotiate with David Koresh and the 80 people who were with him, federal tanks burst into the compound, followed by infantry. The idea was not to annihilate the occupants but to seize them and remove them from the clutches of their leader. The tanks did not open fire, they were there as wall-breachers. But the bodies of all the cult members were found scattered in the collapsed building. Only a few had died in the exchange of fire. Most had committed suicide earlier. Koresh's prophecy about their messianic liquidation in 1993 had proved self-fulfilling, and the American public blamed the administration - from the army to President Clinton - for an idiotic waste of human lives.
    Clinton rehabilitated his image half a year later when he stood on the White House lawn with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat for the ceremony of signing the Oslo accord. For Rabin, it was the moment at which the countdown began that culminated in his assassination two years later. The first bumper stickers calling for his killing were distributed immediately after the triple handshake. The bombing of the No. 5 bus on Rehov Dizengoff in 1994, and the bus bombings that followed, caused a drastic drop in Rabin's stock, and among his opponents on the nationalist-religious right some were already examining what Jewish law says about din rodef - the punishment that is to be meted out to a Jew who persecutes other Jews. In the year that remained of his life, Rabin was vilified as a "traitor" and a "murderer," was depicted wearing an SS uniform and was "carried" in a coffin as part of a procession that included among its participants the right's candidate to succeed him as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
    In the meantime, two dear Jews died (or perhaps only one, since the death of one of them was denied by his followers). Pinhas Sadeh died of cancer and the Lubavitcher Rebbe - how to put it - left for a time . The 100,000 of his followers who attended the funeral and saw him interred in the earth of the Holy Community of Brooklyn were nevertheless able, in their minds, to perform the stunt of substantiating his eternal nature, and thus continued to await his revelation. The billboards bearing his portrait and his sayings did not disappear from the streets of Israel after his passing. They multiplied.

Marching to the dream

"The countdown has begun," declared the French fashion designer Paco Rabanne as he published an apocalyptic book that borrowed from everything in sight (Christianity, Hinduism, astrology) in the best holistic tradition of the New Age. A new survey released by the Gallup institute showed that more than 3 million Americans claimed to have been abducted by aliens. In Israel, as in every corner of the globe, the news showed film of an autopsy that was even more bizarre than the anchorman's tie. Pathologists in protective suits were seen mucking around with the body of the big-eyed, 12-fingered alien that had been fished out of the UFO that crashed in Rosewell, New Mexico, in 1947. That mysterious landing, which may or may not have taken place, now generated worldwide vibes, even though the blurred film, shot with a 16mm camera, looked about as credible as the Land of Oz. In Oklahoma City a millenarian cult blew up the federal building and reaped 200 deaths. In Switzerland the members of the Sun Temple Order killed themselves in their underground church, in the center of which stood an altar holding a gold cup. The Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikiyo (Supreme Truth) carried out a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system using the nerve gas serin, which in the past was used successfully by the Nazis. The attack claimed 12 lives and sent 5,500 people to hospital in serious condition. The cult's members went on to perpetrate more attacks, their heads wrapped with iron threads so they could tune in to the brainwaves of their leader, Shoko Asahara. The number of mystic cults in Japan - the number of cults, not the number of cult members - now stood at 190,000. As the world increasingly became a single communications network of television, satellites, cable and computer terminals; as it continued to contract into a "global village" where everyone watched MTV and CNN; as private space was breached and physical distance annulled by perpetual accessibility to fax, modem, beeper, voice box, cellular phone, e-mail and the Internet; as politics and the media became increasingly commercialized, evolving into an all-consuming capitalist market of ratings, primaries, ad agencies, PR people and popularity polls - thus did the universe of the New Age become increasingly part of that market, another site on the Web. Hippies were supplanted by yuppies. The New Age became one more product in a consumerist reality of bulimic stimuli. Holistic medicine, tarot cards and the star maps of know-it-alls, meditation, contact with aliens and millenarian calculations of the End of Days joined the dissemination of goods and the dissemination of information of the 1990s. What began as a revolt against the technocratic Western culture became part of its very fiber.
    "Oh, people, don't go to television," S. Yizhar appealed to his fellow intellectuals after he appeared on a political talk show. "They will invite you in order to silence you. They will erase you before you have begun, they will turn you into idiotic golems." Words that were right on the mark. A pity he didn't speak them on television, so they could have reached the right audience. Everyone went to the television talk shows so they could hawk their wares. The new TV series "Ramat Aviv Gimmel," vapid as it was, provided a reliable reflection of the new Israeliness, cell phone in one hand and steering wheel of the latest designer jeep in the other. At this point, the temptation is great to say something about the star of the series, Yael Bar Zohar, the girl who... What were we talking about?
    Rabin was assassinated, and in the square where it happened thousands of youngsters lit candles for him and sang the Aviv Geffen song "To Cry for You" and Rotblitt's Shir Hashalom. "This is a sick and polarized society," Yitzhak Ben Aharon wrote. "It has nothing to believe in. With its sincere and sweeping grief it has seized on Rabin in order to believe in something." After the assassination, the young Geffen, the representative spokesman of the 1990s youth generation, released a song that became the kids' anthem. "We will march to the dream without flag or nation, let's give it a try, until it is good, until it is." Never had a song been written with music and lyrics so reminiscent of Lennon's "Imagine," and never was the reaction to a political murder so apolitical as the yearning of the "children of the candles" to march to the dream. "We will bury the rifles and not the children," Geffen sang, and the children about whom and to whom his voice went out were educated not by reading books or watching enrichment programs on the Educational Television of the past; now they were hooked on modish objects of reverence that pranced and prattled on the programs of the Children's Channel on cable television. The content broadcast by the presenters boiled down to their own presence. The vacuum was not meant to be filled by any kind of information about the world but with the photogenic chuckles of Yael Bar Zohar, Itai Segev, Oded Menashe, Yael Bar Zohar, Dana Dvorin, Michal Yanai, Nimrod Reshef and Yael Bar Zohar.

The third star

   "Netanyahu is good for the Jews," the Chabadniks let it be known with posters and car stickers on the eve of the 1996 elections. Netanyahu received the used toy called the State of Israel and began turning it over and over as though pondering what to do with it. The main thing that marked his three years in power - after he hung an aerial photograph of Gamla on his office wall, placed portaits of his family on his desk and filled the drawers with the cigars he was so fond of - was that religious and secular, and Sephardim and Ashkenazim moved even more poles apart from one another. "We are the true Zionists, the Sephardi Torah Guardians," Aryeh Deri cried out at a Shas party rally, convened after he was suspected of involvement in the fiasco of the appointment of the Jerusalem lawyer Roni Bar-On to the post of attorney general. "They treated us like UFOs, but the more they humiliated us, the stronger we became." Rabbi David Yosef, the son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said that "the public will have to choose between their half a million druggies and our half a million penitents."
    The Supreme Court became a red rag for the Shasniks. In the spring of 1997 thousands of them, driven by blind fury, burst into the Supreme Court building, and if they hadn't been turned back by security guards, who can say what judgment they would have visited on the judges? On the Lag b'Omer holiday, Haredi youngsters used their bonfires to burn the national flag. "This isn't our country," one of them explained to a reporter, and he had a good teacher: Rabbi Schach termed democracy a "curse" and declared that "everyone in the legislature takes bribes." Shas MK Shlomo Benizri was incensed that Haim Nachman Bialik was considered the "national poet" of Israel, as his poems were known to induce young people to turn away from Judaism. "The secular public are Hebrew-speaking goys," Brig. Gen. Ya'akov Amidror, the deputy head of Military Intelligence, pronounced as he straightened the knitted kippa on his brow. "The leftists," Netanyahu whispered into the ear of the venerable kabbalist Rabbi Kedouri, "have forgotten what it is to be Jews."
    MK Ehud Barak apologized to the Sephardis in the name of the Labor Party in all its historical incarnations, and the Sephardis' reaction ranged between contempt and indifference. When Barak submitted a bill in the Knesset to draft Haredi yeshiva students, the Council of Torah Sages reminded him that "the holy Torah is what protects the Land of Israel and its inhabitants."
    The expression "Jewish bookshelf" cropped up so frequently in the cultural supplements that it began to compete with "end of the millennium" for the title of cliche of the decade. No self-respecting intellectual passed up the opportunity to proffer his opinion on the subject. One held that the return to the Jewish bookshelf amounted to self-abnegation in the face of the ultra-Orthodox, another argued that it was no more than a broadening of people's cultural horizons, a third said it was a welcome return to roots and yet another claimed it was part of the tactics of "know your enemy."
    The bookshelf of the New Agers was augmented by the addition of Graham Hancock's bestseller "Fingerprints of the Gods," in which the author set out to prove that the ancient monuments scattered around the world were built by an alien or Atlantian civiliation 12,000 years ago. The findings that filled the book were too solid to be simply shrugged off. The fact, for example, that the Egyptian pyramids are set in their space like a reflection of the Orion star system, and that that system had been in the skies parallel to the pyramids 12,000 years ago is a datum with implications worthy of being reflected upon, although it's also possible to forgo such reflections in favor of others (Yael Bar Zohar) - but you can't deny the facts. You can't deny, for example, the quartz-crystal skull that was found in Honduras and was shown by carbon-dating to be 12,000 years old. It is a perfect skull, almost diamond-hard; the experts say it would take our current technology about 30 years to manufacture something similar, if at all. This is not a couple of English pranksters with planks. Whoever made the Honduras skull may have resembled human beings, but did not resemble us in terms of the knowledge they possessed. Two French astronauts now discovered a third star in the Sirian system; that African tribe, it turned out conclusively, knew what they were talking about when Robert Temple visited them in 1976. And if anyone suspected that they had heard about all this from a passing tourist, that suspicion was now dispelled: no one in the world had known about the third star until that moment.

Apocalypse now

    Pope John Paul II issued an encylical setting forth the stages of preparation for the end of the millennium. In Santa Fe, California, the members of yet another Christian cult, Gates of Eden, committed suicide. They did so, they announced, because Halley's Comet had a tail consisting of a UFO four times the size of planet Earth, which was coming "to take them back home." The third planet from the sun, populated by moviegoers, was now attacked by aliens in the Hollywood movie "Independence Day" and by a terrifying meteor in the Hollywood movie "Armageddon."
    Aviv Geffen released a new song called "End of the World." In 1997 the young writer Gadi Taub published a collection of his essays which dealt with the meaninglessness of the current Israeli culture. In 1998 Taub married Katie Kimchi, the sister of Tamir Kimchi, known as "Rafik" ever since he was baptized into Osho's movement. In 1999 they were divorced. Katie flew to India, hooked up with her brother in Puna and became part of a television series featuring Tamir Kimchi and friends, which was broadcast on Channel Two with the title "Cosmic Optimism." Katie discovered happiness, discovered Osho and found herself a new partner, known as "Ojas" since his Hebrew name was changed, as is the custom in the movement.
    In the 1999 elections Ehud Barak won what was effectively a contest among three candidates and not between two parties. The substanceless personalization, the rule by popularity ratings and the neutralization of the ideological aspect of Israeli politics combined to produce a peak which it will be difficult to exceed. Among the dozens of one-issue parties that ran in the elections, there were three lists whose people came from New Age movements: the ecological Greens party, the Natural Law party of followers of Maharish Mahesh Yogi, and the Green Leaf party of the grass-smokers and butt-heads, in which Rafik Tamir was a key activist. None of the three got enough votes to enter the Knesset, but more Israelis voted for Green Leaf than, for example, the Third Way party of the Golan Heights faithful.
    In groves and on beaches, Israel's young generation danced itself into oblivion to the monotonic music of trance, with capsules melting on tongues en route to brain. In the spring, in a field near Zichron Yaakov, a trance party lasting a few days was held. In the summer, thousands of Israelis flew to Hungary to attend a mass trance dance party to mark the solar eclipse. Hundreds of millions of people across the planet ceased functioning on the day of the eclipse and gave themselves over to an apocalyptic blackout. The Genesis festival was held in conjunction with Rosh Hashanah in a wood near Karkour, and in addition to trance music and the appearance of New Age music groups, lessons were given in tantric sex (guide: Rafik Kimchi; producer of the event: his sister).
    The Judgment Day prophecies in the Revelation of John seemed to be starting to materialize when an earthquake buried thousands of Turks and an exceptionally powerful storm battered the eastern United States. Fear of the Y2K bug - which may bring about the collapse of the world's computers at nidnight on December 31, 1999 - made its contribution to the sense of the impending end. An endless number of products and labels, from cosmetics to kitchen utensils, carried the name "Millennium." Millennium to the right of you, millennium to the left of you, there is no way out, like a hall of mirrors where you are reflected endlessly, turn where you may.
    Jesus is poised in the heavens. The Lubavitcher Rebbe is delayed around the corner while he straightens his hat. The aliens are coming, only two more galaxies to pass and they'll come down to drink coffee on Sheinkin. The world is biting its collective nails, looking at its watch, sitting nervously on the bench in the waiting room, crushing another cigarette in the ashtray. Tick tock. Tick tock. This isn't the time to give up smoking. We'll stop smoking in 2000, if nothing happens. Deal? Done. Tick tock. Wait a minute, and what if it happens? What if, after all - the vision of John, Kabbalah, astrology, hole in the ozone layer? You know what - let it happen. Let it happen already. Let it happen and let us die, as long as we stop being afraid. To die, to rest, perchance to give up smoking.

Assaf Inbari 1999